Native Plant Profiles

Cardinal Flower: A Hummingbird Magnet

Please welcome Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities Coordinator Kim Brand.  Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities initiative is a partnership program involving more than 20 organizations whose mission is to create a more bird-friendly North Carolina. This vision statement guides the goals and projects of the group: “Bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.”

The Cardinal Flower is among our Bird-Friendly Native Plants of the Year for 2016. Find this and other beautiful bird friendly native plants at your local participating retailer.

Cardinal Flower richly deserves its name, but not because it attracts North Carolina’s state bird, the Northern Cardinal. It doesn’t. The Cardinal Flower is named for its thrillingly cardinal-red flowers.

For attracting hummingbirds, the Cardinal Flower gets our bird-friendly seal of approval because it is an excellent source of nectar for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds mid-August through October. This is when the hummers are in their southward migration through North Carolina.

Need to Know

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis is native to the N.C. mountains, piedmont and coastal plain. You’ll see it in wet areas throughout the state, and it is a wonderful choice for a backyard rain garden according to the NC Cooperative Extension Service.

Even if you don’t have a wet area in your yard, you can still find a good spot for a Cardinal Flower. Cardinal Flower is quite adaptable, growing well in wet to average, even dryish, soil. This hardy plant will even grow along a city street. I was delighted to see it thriving in a very urban part of Baltimore, where my colleagues Susie Creamer and Erin Reed at Patterson Park Audubon Center collaborated with neighbors to plant a bird-friendly garden and create a mural featuring birds and plants.

How to Grow

Choose a sunny or shady spot. Cardinal Flower is a short-lived perennial, but it will self-sow, so you’ll enjoy it for years without having to re-plant. Flower spikes can grow 2 to 3 feet tall, or even taller depending on conditions. Evergreen basal leaves may grow to 1 foot across.

It is also very easy  to plant from seed, so much so that the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill has named the Cardinal Flower its Wildflower of the Year three times! The NC Botanical Garden is a partner in our Bird-Friendly Native Plants of the Year program.

Great for Birds

Cardinal Flower is as pollinator-friendly as it is bird-friendly. It will attract butterflies, bees and other pollinating insects, too. Several species of butterflies and moths lay their eggs on plants in the genus Lobelia, so you – and the hungry birds in your yard – might find a few caterpillars on them.  And caterpillars are a major food source for baby birds. Bonus!

“Cardinal flower is so widely recognized and grown, it could be our national flower,” notes Dr. Larry Mellichamp in his book, Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden. Give it a try!

Cardinal Flower is one of our 2016 Bird-Friendly Native Plants of the Year. Check out our Growing Guide for more details on this and many more bird-friendly plants for North Carolina. 

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